21 Reasons You Should Start Having One on Ones with Your Team

“I don’t have time.”

“My team is fine.”

“I have too many reports.”

“I don’t want to mix personal and professional discussions.”

“We’re all adults here that can handle their own problems.”

“The meetings don’t scale and we only do scalable things here.”

There are a lot of excuses why you might not be doing 1 on 1s with your team. And while they may seem like good reasons, there are a lot more reasons why you should be doing them. If you’re a hold out or skeptic of 1 on 1s, or trying to convince someone to do 1 on 1s, here’s a set of reasons they’re a key weapon in a great manager’s arsenal.

21 Reasons You Should Have 1 on 1s with Your Team

1) Follow veteran leaders who swear by them.

Ben Horowitz, VC at A16Z and former CEO of Opsware (acquired by HP for $1.6Bn), considered it a fireable offense for any manager that did not hold regular 1 on 1s. Andy Grove, founder & CEO of Intel and legendary leadership author also advocates for them.

2) Give timely feedback and constructive criticism.

Are you doing annual reviews? Even if you’ve accelerated them to quarterly, it’s still not timely enough to discuss performance improvement. Think you can do it ad hoc? When was the last time you really made time to give that feedback? Chances are you thought of it, then got distracted by 37 other things and didn’t want to schedule a meeting just for that. The great thing about 1 on 1s is that this can be just a small part of the meeting that’s all about the team member.

3) Get private feedback.

It’s often hard to get feedback as a manager even though you know there are places you could improve. Not everyone wants to write out feedback on forms.  In 1 on 1s where you’ve built rapport and trust, you have the perfect channel for the candid feedback that will help you improve, too.

4) Float your ideas before they’re fully baked.

Thinking about a new initiative and want unfiltered feedback before you invest a lot of time in it? A 1 on 1 is the perfect place for your semi-baked ideas you think may have an impact. Using 1 on 1s for this can be a great way to build trust that this is a place they can be vulnerable as well and not feel like you need a 50 slide powerpoint ready before getting feedback from your team on an idea.

5) Make time to talk about their career consistently.

Everyone has career aspirations. They will want to grow and try new things. If you don’t have the conversations with your people about this growth, they’ll look for growth opportunities outside your company. Without one on ones, these conversations often get lost in the shuffle and only surface during annual reviews which are quickly forgotten and never acted on.

6) Fix problems when they’re small.

Are you constantly fighting fires and dealing with issues once they’ve exploded? Then you need 1 on 1s. These meetings will help you catch these issues early on, whether between two coworkers or a problem discovered in a process in the company. You still have to follow through on what you hear, but knowing about the problem when it’s small makes it much easier to address than when you have to triage later.

7) Show you care.

You’re making a major statement to your team when you set aside time for them regularly to talk about them. Do not underestimate the impact that showing you care and that they’re important will have on morale, commitment, and trust in you as a leader.

8) Coach & develop your people.

In the middle of a busy meeting is no time to coach one person about something they need to learn, but a one on one is a perfect time for that. As the saying goes:

  • CFO asks CEO: “What happens if we invest in developing our people & then they leave us?”
  • CEO: “What happens if we don’t, and they stay?”

You can’t afford to not grow your people and one on ones are a key place to discuss and plan your team member’s development.

9) Learn empathy for them.

Everyone on your team is different. They come from different backgrounds and experiences. If they’re struggling with something outside work, it rarely can avoid impacting their work. You can give them tough love and they’ll resent you, or you can help and show empathy and they’ll appreciate you.

10) Get forgiven for your mistakes.

We all make mistakes. When a friend or trusted colleague makes a mistake, we are much more likely to forgive them. As a manager, you’re going to make mistakes and the more trust and rapport you have with your team, the more likely they will understand and forgive you.  You build that trust and rapport by having your own empathy for them, which comes from one on ones.

11) Make them feel heard.

Every employee has a unique perspective of how the company operates. Valuing everyone’s insights as to what they’re seeing not only helps you with getting more signal on important issues, but makes them feel like a valued part of the company. Especially as a company or department grows, people can feel marginalized and lost. One one ones are an opportunity to make sure you don’t miss out on what they have to say.

12) Avoid surprise departures.

If someone is thinking about leaving the company, the warning signs will come up in 1 on 1s. If you don’t have 1 on 1s, it will be much easier to feel like you’re not missing anything. Most lost employees can be saved if you address what’s bothering them, which is generally a discussion for 1 on 1s; most people won’t come to you with a series of complaints out of the blue.

13) Learn what drives your team.

Not everyone is motivated by the same things. Outside of sales teams, money is rarely the largest long term driver for people. The more you get to know your people in 1 on 1s, the more you’ll know how to motivate each person uniquely.

14) Create a safe space for their ideas.

Just like you can float ideas to your people, 1 on 1s can be a great place for your reports to share with you loosely formed ideas they have. Often a brief discussion in a 1 on 1 can help encourage them to prepare it to present to the team or understand why it’s not a good idea right now. Either way, they need a safe place to spare them making 50 slides on an idea to feel like they can share it.

15) Give them control of a meeting for once.

If you’re in a very hierarchical organization, lower level employees can feel powerless. One on ones give them that one time per week that they feel in control. It gives them the freedom to talk about whatever is most important to them without having to try to fight for time on your busy calendar ad hoc.

16) Relieve boredom or stagnation on your team.

Many employees, especially in Generation Y, are constantly looking for new ways to grow and learn. If they spend too much time with the same role and responsibilities, they can become bored and feel like they’ve plateaued. You can either milk them for their experience until they leave for a new company, or have a regular conversation about it in 1 on 1s and possibly help them get into a new role in the company.

17) Break up your day.

One on ones are a change of pace from other meetings. These meetings aren’t about deadlines and decision making; they’re about your employee and what’s important to them. That can be a breath of fresh air in a hectic day of meetings, powerpoint decks, and fighting for Inbox Zero.

18) Have an excuse to get outside the office.

It’s often helpful to get outside the conference room for these meetings, as it helps further establish the context switch from being all about what the company needs to what your report needs. If the weather permits, going for a walk can be refreshing.  Aaron Sorkin, Mark Zuckerberg, and Arianna Huffington are well known for walking meetings, so why not give them a try?

19) Have the conversations you never get around to.

How many times does a thought cross your mind that you should talk to someone about? Maybe it’s something you know you should do in person, so you don’t send an email. Then a week goes by and you realize you never took the time to have that conversation and now the problem has gotten worse. One on ones are a great time to talk about those topics and by having them regularly, these topics will never build up too much.

20) Be more consistent with your team.

Are you treating your team equally? Do you fairly divide your attention or does the squeaky wheel get the grease? No matter how hard you try, there’s a good chance you’re investing more time in some people than others. By giving everyone a set amount of your time to focus on them in a 1 on 1, you can ensure no one is getting completely lost in the shuffle.

21) Have a happy, motivated team.

In the end, all of these reasons are just small pieces of what it’s really all about: getting the most out of your team and developing your people. One on ones are a big part of making sure you do all the little things that add up to creating a happy, motivated team.

(Bonus) Do it right the second time.

Maybe you tried 1 on 1s before and they didn’t work for you. Were you consistent in holding them? Did you follow through on issues they brought up? Did you give them a real chance? You have to follow through on what you hear and give a few months to really build trust to tackle big issues in 1 on 1s.  They’re too important not to give them another chance.

Can you really fit all of this in a one on one?!?!?

No, you can’t cover all of this in a single one on one. And without one on ones, it’s highly doubtful you can ever hope to cover all of those important things. However, over time, you can cover all of these areas in regular one on ones.

It’s never too late to start. As the old Chinese proverb says:

“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is today.”

There are many competing demands of your attention as a manager, many of which pay off faster than the long term investment in your people. One on ones are a tremendous tool and an essential part of being an effective manager.

Convinced to start or try again? Learn how to start having effective 1 on 1s here.


3 Keys to Starting to do 1 on 1s with Your Team

“…if Tim doesn’t meet with each one of his employees in the next 24 hours, I will have no choice but to fire him and to fire you. Are we clear?”

- Ben Horowitz, The Hard Things About Hard Things, pg. 102

Ben Horowitz, VC and founder of Opsware (sold to HP for $1.6 Billion), said this to one of his reports when he discovered that a manager had not held 1 on 1s with his team members in over 6 months. Horowitz cared so much about a great work environment for his employees that he considered a lack of 1 on 1s a fireable offense for the manager and the manager’s manager.

Crazy? Over the top? Maybe not. Former Intel CEO and legendary author on leadership and management Andy Grove is an advocate for 1 on 1s as well. Many well known companies today including HubSpot, Moz, and Atlassian, use them, too.

And why do they all make 1 on 1s a key part of their management?

1 on 1s are an open line of communication to understand what is on the mind of each of your team members. It helps you get in front of problems before they blow up and it gives your team a recurring way to have their voices heard. It can also save you from having an employee leave the company without warning.

Even if you’ve bought into the importance of 1 on 1s, there’s still the question of how to get started from scratch. It can be intimidating and a little awkward at first, but with the right plan, you will learn invaluable things in the meeting and have much happier employees.

Ready to start your 1 on 1s? Here are some tips I’ve learned along the way from my own mistakes and the advice of more experienced leaders.

3 Keys to Starting 1 on 1s on Your Team

1) Scheduling 1 on 1s

At least 30 minutes, no more than 60 minutes.

- Context switching can be hard for you and your report. Meetings are usually about work issues, so switching to talking about themselves often doesn’t click right away. For this reason 15 minute 1 on 1s are ill-advised, because you’ll just be getting warmed up when it’s over. Shorter 1 on 1s also run the risk of a late start leaving no time for actual discussion. You can always end a meeting early if everything is good, but you want the flexibility to run a little longer if you’re digging into something important.

Always the same time and day.

- You want to get into a rhythm with these meetings. This ensures you have a regular discussion that your team member can count on. It also helps you avoid having to cancel and move them around constantly. Ideally, you’ll pick a time you know you’re more likely to be around and available on a regular basis.

Choose a frequency you can handle.

- Weekly is best, but if you have too many reports for that or know your team very well, every 2 weeks is fine. If you push to a full month between 1 on 1s you may be going too long between discussions. You will know you need to have 1 on 1s more frequently if every 1 on 1 seems to run long or you struggle to dig into issues that are really important to them.

2) Having a Good 1 on 1

This is their time.

- This meeting is not a status report on projects they’re working on. The other 39 hours (or likely really 59 or more for many of you) are all about what you and the company need. 1 on 1s are a time to listen to them and hear them out. The goal is to help them be more happy and productive at work. Set that standard from the very first meeting and you’ll have much more productive 1 on 1s.

Try to get out of the office.

- You want to hear about issues they’re having and talk about their goals and interests. This context switch from getting work done to talking about them can be hard. It can also be uncomfortable to talk about a problem you’re having with a coworker in a conference room near that person. Getting into a different environment, like going for a hike, to a coffee shop, or to grab a beer at a pub, can all help aide that context switch. Bonus points if you can pick a location they particularly like to further reinforce that this is their time.

Have a few questions ready.

- When you first start 1 on 1s, people can be a bit nervous and reserved.  Some more introverted employees will always be that way, so start from the first meeting having a few questions ready to ask them to spark conversation.  Some good examples of questions include:

  • How do you feel [current project they're on] is going? Is anything frustrating you? What are you enjoying about it?
  • Is anything exciting you at work right now?
  • What are your long term goals? Do you feel you’re making progress on them? (This is a question that often changes and needs revisited as you build trust.)
  • How could we make the team you’re on better?
  • For more good questions, sign up for Popforms emails.

Be open and listen. It’s a friendly conversation, not an interrogation. The more they feel heard, the more they’re likely to open up. You won’t get everything in the very first meeting, but over time, you’ll see them trust you more and more as long as you avoid the pitfalls that can ruin 1 on 1s.

3) Avoiding Major Pitfalls

Never Cancel a 1 on 1.

- It may not seem like a big deal to you, but it really hurts your team member when you cancel a 1 on 1 with them. In their view, you’re saying, “this meeting isn’t important to me,” which then says to them they aren’t important to you. This is why scheduling the meetings at a recurring time you can stick to is so important. If you absolutely can’t make a 1 on 1, realize that rescheduling is much better than flat out canceling.

Always follow through.

- If you talk about problems they have, but never do anything about them, you’ll only further frustrate your team members. They’ll then shut you out and won’t give you feedback any more. The benefits of 1 on 1s will be lost. Instead, make sure you follow through and follow up with them on the issues they raise. That feeling of progress is what will build trust to discuss more things openly with you. It will also act as a pressure release valve on issues that may otherwise lead to major problems or them getting upset enough to look for other jobs.

Stick with it.

- The first 1 on 1 is often kind of awkward, like a first date. You may have never had a candid conversation about their needs, frustrations, and desires before, which means there is often some guardedness.  Stick with it, because over time, that awkwardness will fade. You’ll build a much stronger relationship with your team, which will have major impacts in the quality of all their work, their happiness on the job, and likelihood of staying with the company long term.

How to make your team love you for less than $10

During my time running product at KISSmetrics, I got to work with some awesome people. One of my favorite engineers was a guy named Nate. Nate lives in Ohio with his wife and two kids. He’s a good family man and a solid engineer. He’s always down to go the extra mile to make a feature awesome for customers. He also happens to be a HUGE Mark Price fan.

Nate had been doing some particularly awesome work with me lately and I wanted to thank him in a memorable way.  I had heard others in engineering talk repeatedly about how Nate was obsessed with retired Cleveland Cavalier Mark Price, even wearing his jersey during engineering standups. Having noted that weeks ago, I knew that was the key to a great gift.

Finding the Gift:

Living in San Francisco, there isn’t a lot of Mark Price memorabilia available, so I went to Ebay to see what they had.  Within minutes of searching, I stumbled upon Mark Price Figures and knew I had just the thing.

Mark Price Figurine

#Winning. I could make Nate’s day for less than $10!

The Results:

Using the Buy It Now feature, I quickly received the figure. I then added a personal note and shipped it off to Nate. When he received it, he reacted like a kid on Christmas:

Screen Shot 2014-05-05 at 1.49.40 PM

Screen Shot 2014-05-05 at 11.20.02 AM

Nate also texted me the day he got it.

Even better, Mark Price sits on Nate’s desk to this day.

Nate's desk

Nate’s desk with Mark Price mug and *figure*

You can do this too.

With just a few minutes of my time and less than $10 spent, I made Nate’s day. More importantly, I strengthened our work relationship. There is no amount of cash or gift card that would have meant nearly as much or had as deep an impact. And with it sitting on his desk, he is reminded every day of it.

How to give a great gift to a team member

What you’re saving financially is being made up for in thoughtfulness. Everyone wants to be recognized and appreciated as a unique individual and that’s why these gifts are so much better than money. There are a few keys to remember if you’re going to do this for a team member and want to have the same results.

1) Meaning

The most important thing is to give a gift that uniquely resonates with that person. A Mark Price figure to any of my other coworkers would have been meaningless, but to Nate, it was perfect.

These aren’t just things they Like on Facebook. Pay attention to what your team talks about.  What do they *love*? What are they passionate about beyond what most people are? Those are the things that matter. It could be books, board games, a fashion designer, their car, a certain sports team or player, or a restaurant they’re completely in love with. Just realize that the stronger the emotion, the more meaningful it will be when you present the gift.

2) Timing

Don’t just give the gift to them at a random time. Use it as a reward for great work or a behavior you want to reinforce in your culture. Nate had been going above and beyond on a number of projects and been really helpful in explaining technical challenges to me, a non-coding Product Manager.  It was the perfect time to thank him.

The best gifts are also unexpected. It’s great to use these on birthdays, work anniversaries and the like, but it’s even more powerful when they don’t expect it at all.

3) Reinforcing

If you’ve chosen a gift a team member will uniquely love and will present it to them at a time they’ve been doing great work, congratulations, you’re 90% there. The last thing to do is to reinforce the behavior you’re rewarding.

When I sent the figure to Nate, I included a personal note thanking him specifically for the the things I enjoyed working with him on and the help he gave in explaining technical challenges. This ensured that the gift that got such a positive emotional reaction was now tied to the behaviors I wanted to see more of.

But what about….

I know what you’re thinking. Your team is too big, too remote, too private, too busy, or too <excuse> to do this kind of thing.

If you want to really retain and motivate your best team members, these kinds of things pay massive dividends. You should make time for it. This took me about 30 minutes in total between ordering, writing the note, and shipping it. You cannot put a price on what a heavily motivated employee will do for your company, especially compared to one that feels unrecognized and unappreciated.

The Power of 1 on 1s

The best time to find out these kinds of things is in 1 on 1s. This is especially true if your reports are remote so you don’t get general office interactions. 1 on 1s are the one time a week an employee gets to talk about themselves instead of just what the company needs. Pay attention and you’ll learn what their motivations and passions are. Aligning work with those motives and recognizing their passions will pay massive dividends in team morale.

Nate wasn’t my direct report, but every 2 weeks we had a Google Hangout to talk about what was going on in the company, and catch up personally.  I did this while I was the only PM at a 35 person company often juggling 4 different projects. I also never met Nate in person while I worked at KISSmetrics. What’s your excuse?

Remember the little things

I have the memory of a goldfish (or at least the urban legend version of one). Even meaningful things like this can slip my mind if I don’t record them. That’s why years ago I started keeping track of the passions, interests and motivations of people I work with. The system, when combined with good 1 on 1s and goal setting has helped me be a much better manager and is why I’m starting a company to help others do the same.

If you’re interested in getting early access to my app that will help you be a great, thoughtful manager, you can sign up below:

What Viktor Frankl can teach us about managing teams

Viktor Frankl is a psychologist, author, and Holocaust survivor. In his seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he advocates for everyone to find their meaning of life. This is no small task for anyone, let alone helping someone else discover it, but it is the most important thing anyone can find if they want to be happy and successful.

Frankl’s 3 ways to discover your meaning are:

  1. Creating a work or doing a deed.
  2. By experiencing something or encountering someone.
  3. By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.

As a manager and leader, you have people working for you who are giving almost half of their waking life towards your company. Fortunately, many of those tasks can fit into Frankl’s 3 ways.  To keep them motivated and engaged, you must find ways to align their meaning with the company. With a little work, this can be achieved.

How to align your employee’s work & meaning

1) Give them ownership

Have you ever been given a task that someone had everything spelled out to a T how to do it? How motivated were you to work on that? If it was something important to you, it likely felt very stifling to not be able to do it how you saw fit.  Don’t do that to your employees. Give them the opportunity to use their skills to accomplish tasks in the way they choose.

2) Help them see the big picture

People join companies for many reasons, and a company’s core mission is often one of them.  Once they’re settled in their job and the day to day grind, it can become easy to lose sight of that mission that attracted them in the first place. Don’t let that happen! Repeating yourself as a leader is very important, especially if it’s reinforcing the core mission.

3) Connect the company mission to their tasks

Having everyone on your team understanding the company’s core mission is important. Tying their specific job to that mission is just as important. When someone feels like what they do really matters and they can see the impact, you create a powerful, motivating feedback loop. And if you manage someone in a low level job and don’t think you can tie their work to what matters, you should watch this.

4) Listen to their personal goals

It’s not all about the company. Your employees have hopes and dreams of their own. The more you can align those dreams with their work and show them how the company furthers their goals, the more motivated they will be. Humans have a natural urge to work on things bigger than themselves and a company is an amazing vehicle for this if you seize the opportunity.

What about the suffering?

Yes, Frankl believes suffering in life is not only inevitable, but essential. It is during times of suffering that we grow the most.  If you’ve ever worked long hours on a project, you can empathize with how major challenges can help you grow tremendously. Often, you work those hours because you were motivated in some way, likely one or even all 4 of the above reasons.

Frankl loved a particular quote by Nietzsche that captures it well:

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

It is when people lose their why that they can no longer endure the how that they are facing. At work, long hours or a project they’re struggling with can wear them down without the above alignment. When this happens, everyone loses as they will start looking for other jobs and their work output will rapidly decline.

Are you giving your team the whys they need?

 

The most important word for motivating your team

Progress. It’s a word that has driven man for generations to grow, develop, learn, and reach for the stars (sometimes even literally). It often feels stale and disheartening when progress isn’t being made.  There’s a reason that Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson have all invested in space travel; NASA stopped making progress and they were all inspired to push to advance mankind to space.

For us mere mortals, progress may not be measured on a societal scale, but we all still have goals. These goals are what drive us and motivate us to get up in the morning. As a manager, you are not only accountable to your own goals, but that of everyone on your team.

Do each of your team members make regular progress on their goals? Do projects drag on for months, or do they see results of the fruit of their labors on a regular basis? Whether you’re in sales, marketing, engineering, design or support, progress is hugely important to the mental well being of every team member.

The stakes for progress on your team couldn’t be higher. Engineers that don’t ship product for months have a high propensity for burn out.  Employees in any department will become frustrated and seek challenges at new companies if they feel like they’re no longer growing, learning, and working on things they’re excited about.

As a manager, you need to help your team make progress: Ship. Close deals. Get wins. See results.

But how do you reliably do this? How do you get out in front of potential disaster?

How to ensure your team members are making regular progress

1) Remove Blockers

Few things are as frustrating as feeling like you can’t get your work done because of someone else. Waiting for decisions or dealing with someone who is a bottleneck in a work flow can quickly stall out even the most talented person’s ability to make progress.

As a manager, you can often be the cause of those blockers. Diffuse that source of frustration for your team as much as you can. A great lesson I learned from Jonathan Kay, CEO of Apptopia, is to regularly ask everyone on your team, “Am I blocking you?” and then follow through on anything they ask for you to help them with right away.

When you meet with your team, always ask them if they’re being blocked in any way. The more you can help remove the blockers (even when you’re not directly responsible), the more your team will be able to get done and feel productive.

2) Empower Your Team

Are you a dictator that rules with an iron fist, making every little decision for your team? Or do you delegate effectively to your team, trusting them to make decisions on their own in their areas of expertise?

As a manager, there are too many decisions to make to micromanage everyone. You become much more scalable (and less likely to block them), when you let your team make the little decisions in their jobs. You also are then empowering them to have ownership over their work and focused on accountability to you on the results.

Work with your team to set the goals and expectations, but trust them to do the work you hired them in the best way they see fit. If you can’t trust them to do so, you need to hire people you can trust.

3) Align goals

Every person has different motivations and interests. If you understand what their goals are, you can help them get on the right projects with the right responsibilities. When someone’s work is aligned with their personal and professional goals, you will see them operate at their highest possible performance level.

As a manager, you need to regularly talk about each team member’s goals and interests. Not only will they differ person to person, but they will also change over time. Yee Lee, VP of Engineering at TaskRabbit, reminds himself to check with every member of the engineering team at least every 3 months to see if their long term goals have changed (they often do for many reasons). This ensures that everyone is making progress on their goals and the company keeps everyone aligned with what their asked to do on the job.

4) Watch for warning signs

Every big problem started out as a small one. The more you can identify problems when they’re small, the more likely you are to avoid having to constantly triage major issues that will take up all the time you don’t have.

When projects are making less progress or dragging on, you can often tell based on a shift in morale. Look for signs that people are not as engaged in a project or seem to be growing in frustration. What seems small to you on the outside may be a big issue brewing for those on the inside on a project.

The best early warning is your one on ones. When you ask them how something is going one on one, they’re more likely to be candid than in a group and you can also dig a little deeper by asking revealing questions such as, “What’s the most frustrating part of our project you’re working on now?” Whatever you hear, act on it appropriately and you will not only diffuse the situation, but build trust in your team that they can bring important issues to you no matter the size.

5) Take no one for granted

It’s easy to think that someone who crushes it at their job will want to keep doing it forever. Unfortunately, times and motivations change for everyone and, if you’re not careful, you will lose people when those motivations shift.

You need a strong communication channel to keep your best people. If they trust you, they will tell you.  Joe Stump, co-founder of Sprintly, had a great engineer who told Joe that he wanted to try something new (in his case, marketing). As much as Joe hated losing an engineer, he hated losing a talented team member even more, so Joe worked with the engineer to shift to a growth hacking role they were excited to do and the company needed.

As a manager, it’s easy to spend all your time on weaker team members or people that need the most mentorship. Don’t forget to check in on even your best talents or you may find out when it’s too late. This is why you should do one on ones with *everyone* on your team.

Your people are motivated by one word: Progress.  Are you helping them get there?

How to do a Jobs To Be Done Interview

Jobs To Be Done (#JTBD) is getting a lot of attention lately as a valuable, new method for product and marketing teams (if you’re not familiar check out the podcast and the Milkshake video that started it all).

For the product team, they can better understand the motivations and needs of their users. As a marketer, you can understand the journey a future customer goes through to go from considering finding a solution to their problems to actually choosing your product. This is priceless for your marketing site and copywriting as well.

There’s a lot of great posts coming out on why Jobs To Be Done matters, but I haven’t seen much on how to actually do the interviews. Since I’ve done them a bunch myself, taught a number of my friends, and written previously about how to do customer development interviews, I wanted to share the process I’ve learned and evolved:

How to do a Jobs To Be Done Interview

Getting in the right mindset

These interviews are very different than a traditional customer development interview, usability testing, and other common customer interview practices. It’s a lot more free form than other processes that usually just want to uncover a few problems or learn some basic customer demographics.

For JTBD, you need to think of yourself like a detective interviewing a witness at a crime scene, or a documentary filmmaker trying to tell a story. Believe it or not, there’s a significant process a user goes through to become a customer and it’s often measured in weeks or months. Once you finish this process you’ll be able to fill in a timeline that looks like this:

jtbd-timelineThe key is to get users thinking about their purchasing process and filling in the gaps while they remember the various events along the way. Your users won’t think of them with the words of that timeline, but you’ll see where those things happen.  Fortunately, the questions I’ll show you will help your interviewee remember the various steps.

Here’s a quick cheat sheet of the terms on the timeline with an example of a friend who bought a new car.  Skip down if you already understand the timeline.

1) First Thought: What caused the first thought to think about making the purchase? When was it?

- My friend owned a Prius and it was a few years old. One night when he was driving home from work, he hit a neighbor’s trash can that had rolled onto the road. He looked at the front of the car and saw it was kind of scuffed up, but not enough to take it to the shop. This made him think, “Maybe it’s time I got a new car.”

2) Passively Looking: What did they do while they were passively looking? For how long?

- My friend started thinking about what kind of car he would get next. He knew he wanted a fast car and was focused on luxury brands. He started browsing Audi, BMW and Lexus sites to look at their cars.

3) Event #1: What happened that switched them from passively to actively looking?

- My friend’s wife would need some convincing to agree to a new car. As it turns out, about a month after the trash can incident, her brother mentioned he needed a car. My friend could give his car to his brother in law and kill two birds with one stone.  With permission from his wife, he could now actively look for the car.

4) Actively Looking: What did they do while they were actively looking?

- My friend started looking up reviews of the various cars he was interested in and asked friends that owned the cars for their opinions. He has a long time mentor that he in particular appreciates their taste, and so he asked their opinion.  My friend is an Apple fanboy, so craftsmanship is really important to him as well. Both his mentor and his own research pointed to Audi being the brand best committed to those ideals.

5) Event #2: What was the event that made him decide to make a purchase at a specific day/time?

- My friend had two events that combined to push him to finally make the purchase. He was scheduled to have surgery soon and he wouldn’t be able to drive for awhile after surgery. Christmas was coming soon too.  He wanted to get the car before his surgery so he could enjoy it a bit first and not put off the purchase that much longer and knew he could claim it as a Christmas present to justify the purchase then. (Now those luxury ads about buying cars as gifts make more sense, right?)

6) Deciding: What helped him make the purchase?

- Now that my friend was ready to buy, he went to the dealerships and test drove the cars that were finalists (a BMW and an Audi). He had a great time speeding down the highway in the Audi, so combined with his friends recommendations and his own research, he was finally ready to buy the car.

Unfortunately, the answers don’t come out that cleanly. You will get bits and pieces of the various steps during the discussion, which is why these interviews have to be more exploratory. You should be able to assemble the timeline afterwards though and start to see how you can market to future customers like your interviewee and alter your product to better fit them (like helping them see the most important value sooner).

The Jobs To Be Done Interview Script

Ok. We’re finally here to the script. Remember, the goal of the conversation is to help the person you’re interviewing remember the steps and key moments in the process that led to the switch.

A few rules for the interviews:
  1. Find people who recently purchased. Most people won’t remember well anything more than 60 days ago. The more recently the event happened, the more likely they are to remember all the details you’ll hope to capture in the interview.
  2. Don’t interrogate. You want your conversation to feel like they’re just talking to a friend.
  3. Pauses are ok. The interviewee is likely going to have to think hard to remember details. Give them time and they’ll often remember things so don’t be afraid of 10-20 seconds or more of silence.
  4. Bounce around the topics. Being non-linear in your questions often leads to new discoveries. Circle back to different things you talked about throughout the interview.
  5. The best stuff comes around 20-25 minutes in. Keep digging and listen carefully. You’ll have a real *woah* moment right around then.  For above timeline example, my friend didn’t initially realize the trash cans started his car buying process.
  6. Take notes & record the interviews. There’s lots of gold in these interviews. You don’t want to forget anything, and be able to review and share them with others later.
  7. Work in teams. A pair often can do better at examining all areas of the moments you’re trying to understand and help with taking good notes. While one person is writing a key point, the other can be asking a question.
  8. Talk to more users until they all sound the same. It generally takes 7-10 interviews to get the patterns of everyone. I found out the root cause of churn for a company by interviewing a bunch of their recently canceled customers and it was very different than what people said it was in an exit survey.
  9. Organize your findings with the Timeline and Four Forces. That’s what they’re there for. You can learn about the Four Forces here.
  10. Don’t lead the interviewee. Try very hard not to ask Yes/No questions. Instead leave room for explanation and listen. Ask lots of “why” and “tell me more” questions.
  11. Timing Matters. Try to find out the day/week/month/hour something happened. There’s often patterns to be found in that timing and it can also help them recall other details as they concentrate to remember.
Jobs To Be Done Questions to Ask:

Unlike other kinds of interviews, you don’t need to always ask every question in the exact same order. These are all just ways to explore the process of their purchase and help them remember their story.

  • When did you first start thinking about your purchase?
    • Was it in the morning or evening? What time was it?
  • Where were you when you made that decision?
  • Was anyone else involved in the purchasing decision?
    • Why?
  • Visualize the environment you were in when you made the decision to purchase…where were you? What was around you?
  • Tell me more about that…(When you hear something interesting/intriguing)
  • Did you consider any competitors? Which ones? Why?
    • Why didn’t you choose them?
  • How did you decide between what you bought and the other options?
  • Why specifically did you buy that day versus any other? Why then? What was unique about that day?
    • What else were you doing that day?
    • Did anyone contribute to sparking the decision that day? Why?
  • What were you using before you had X?
    • Why did you use that? What did you like about it?
    • When did you start using that?
    • What were its shortcomings?
    • What does the new product do that your old solution couldn’t?
  • How do you normally approach choosing a new product?
    • What was your process for this product?
      • Why was it the same/different this time?
  • How do you use the product you’ve purchased?
    • Are there features you use all the time? How?
    • Are there features you never use? Why not?
  • If in doubt, ask them to tell you more about whatever tangential thing they bring up in the discussion.

You’ll notice as you do the interview, certain moments on the timeline will fit what they’re describing. I wouldn’t try to fill in the timeline perfectly until after the interview, but while you’re interviewing you can mark in your notes when it seems like it fits with some part. If a certain area isn’t seeming to be filled in, probe more around that part in their process.

But will this work in my situation? It’s special/hard/unique.

If you can get the interviewee on the phone or to meet in person, then this will work in your situation. I have seen this work for all of the following cases:

  • Buying a car
  • Buying a scanner
  • Buying steaks online
  • Upgrading to Evernote Premium
  • Buying analytics for their business
  • Getting a gym membership for the first time in their life
  • Understanding why customers churned a SaaS product
  • Buying a 2nd iPad for a family with children
  • Buying a milkshake from a fast food chain

Even if multiple people are involved in the decision making process, any one person in the process is likely able to recall most of the key moments.

What have you used Jobs To Be Done for? What are your favorite JTBD interview questions?

A Guide to Finding Your Meaning of Life

The last six months have been a challenging journey for me. I’ve been searching. I’ve been trying to find my unique path in life. I’ve questioned what my calling really is.

Call it being a little lost. Call it a quarter life crisis (a couple years late). Call it whatever you’d like, but for me it has been an incredibly important, personal journey to determine what I should do with my life and finding the next steps to make me truly happy & fulfilled.

This wasn’t something I wanted to talk about (much less write about). However, after yet another conversation with a friend going through the same thing, I realized I really need to share some of the things that helped me get to where I am.

Here’s a few things that really helped me.

1) Read These Books

Everything you’re thinking about has been a challenge for others before. There are experts who have devoted their lives to these subjects and books are a great way to learn from them at your own pace. I read a lot and all of these came highly recommended by friends and mentors, so trust me, they’re helpful.

Mindset by Carol Dweck

Growth means knowing you’re always learning and that even the best were a novice at some point. Never say, “I can’t do that.”  This attitude is an important one to adopt as you find your path: Just because it’s your path, doesn’t mean it will be easy. Mindset will help you understand how to approach the big, scary dreams you have with the right attitude.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport 

“Find your passion” is the message of Generation Y and I think it’s led many of us astray. There are many things we each are passionate about, but not all of them should be more than a hobby. So Good They Can’t Ignore You will help you figure out what you’re great at and how to do more of it while building a fulfilling life.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl 

Only 1 in 12 men sent to a concentration camp survived the Holocaust. The author was one of them. From that experience and a lifetime as psychologist, Frankl has some powerful views on life and the importance of having a personal Why. He also reminds us that suffering is a part of life; as much as the American media makes us think we’re all supposed to be happy 24/7, there’s value and growth in struggling with the right things.

2) Find Your Must

I was fortunate to catch Elle Luna’s amazing talk on Finding Your Must when she originally gave her talk in October and am so glad the talk is recorded for all to see. I’ve shared the video with countless friends since. Watch it here: http://vimeo.com/77436516

As you go through those books, it’s important to listen for that voice inside you for what it really wants. In the case of Elle, she was a successful designer at Mailbox (bought by Dropbox), but was having dreams pulling her in another direction.

Just as important is Elle’s awesome article on First Round Capital’s amazing blog called, “What to do at the Crossroads of Should and Must.” This came at the perfect time for me as I was interviewing for jobs I thought I *should* take while working on a startup I felt I *must* work on. I am coincidentally no longer doing the should and focused on the things I feel I must do.

There is a lot of material in the article different than her talk so I encourage you to check out both.

3) Buy a Notebook

This doesn’t have to be anything special. Just get one of those old school spiral-bound notebooks with lots of pages and your favorite writing form (pen, pencil, sharpie, etc).

Start Writing.

Once you have the notebook, sit down alone and start writing anything that comes to mind. Just get everything swimming in your head out and write until you’ve filled a few pages. Do this every day.

What you write about will change. I’ve written about everything from passions to frustrations, forgiveness to regrets, startup ideas to objective views of the past. Every bit of it helped in different ways and brought my mind out of places I was previously stuck.

After awhile you will find you may have less of an urge to write. That’s okay. Know that the notebook is there to release things when they’re stuck inside. It needs an outlet. Don’t bother reading what you’ve written either; some of it won’t be nice things, but there’s a good chance getting it out will help you move on. At least for me, this journey was as much about finding what’s next as it was letting go of things holding me back.

Now, I don’t write in the notebook every day, but when I have something I need to get out of me, I stop what I’m doing and grab the notebook to start writing. I also use it when I’m stuck on something and need to explore an idea. It is this exploration that helped me arrive at what I’m excited to be working on today.

You can learn more about this process here: http://www.dr-jane-bolton.com/support-files/the-artists-way.pdf

4) Read The 12 Week Year

Another book? Yes. The ideas that you’ll be piecing together from the above books, the great stuff from Elle Luna, and writing will make you ready for this book. This is the book that will help you put it all together and figure out how you can really execute on that scary, ambitious *must* that’s dying to get out of you.

The 12 Week Year by Moran & Lennington

On the surface it looks like another pop-self-help book, but it has an important process that will help you clearly define who you want to become and how you can get there.

They ask you who you want to be in 10-20 years, then what you want to be in 3 years to put you on a path to get there, and finally how to find the actionable steps you can take in the next 12 weeks to begin. Following their exercises and examples helped me sew together all the ideas that I had generated from the rest of my journey.

5) Don’t Fear Failure

The first thing you try probably won’t work. Taking the first step to get out the door though is very important. Every thing you try will add new skills, new perspectives, and new people to your life. All of those will combine to bring you closer to your end goal, even if that’s not entirely clear. Don’t be afraid to quit and try something else.

I was an Electrical Engineer in college who realized he didn’t want to be one.  I tried to start a hardware company with some friends (it failed). Then I started Greenhorn Connect, a modest success that gave me a platform for developing skills in marketing, hiring, managing, product and sales. This helped me get jobs first at oneforty (the now-defunct app store for Twitter) and then to move to SF to join KISSmetrics. In both jobs, I learned a ton. Between those two jobs, I tried consulting (the only thing I liked was the money) and a bunch of startup ideas that went nowhere (hint: the moving industry is not a great place to build software).

Most recently, I spent last fall diving into the world of 3D Printing and just never found the right team and idea in the nascent industry. This led me to job hunt again, which is when a lot of the above journey of discovery began.  It was only then that I realized what I really want to do now.

Every step in the journey has been important in helping me get here.  I’ve embraced the fact that this could be another failed step, or the one that puts it all together.

Conclusion

If you really work at it, if you really think about the ideas in the books above and challenge yourself to write what’s in your heart, then I believe you’ll have some things to go on to find the next steps in your uniquely fulfilling life.

I have realized both the good and the bad in my life has taught me important lessons and prepared me for what’s next. In my case, that’s writing a book about How to Build Customer Driven Products based on what I’ve learned from the jobs I’ve had, the consulting I’ve done, and the great mentors I’ve met along the way.  It also means patching up a few relationships I made mistakes with and have much better perspective on now. Most importantly to me, it’s realizing that I’m a founder at heart and that I’m now working on an idea I’m driven to work on every day: helping people be better managers.

I can’t guarantee these tactics will work for you, but working through all of the above and with the help of some great friends I’ve gotten to a satisfying place.  If you’ve asked these questions of yourself before, I’d love to hear what helped you in the comments. This post is for all those coming after us that could use help on figuring out their journey.

The 5 Harsh Truths of Being a Manager

Being a manager is hard. It’s an entirely different set of skills than what you learned as an individual contributor and good resources are few and far between.  Most companies, especially if they’re startups, have no leadership training, so you’re often on your own. Making matters worse, you often have more bad examples of management around you than good ones.

So what’s an aspiring great manager to do? It starts with understanding the harsh truths of the role and then getting the right help.

The Harsh Truths of Being a Manager

1) Leadership is service to your team.

When you become a manager, it’s no longer about you. You are judged based on how your team performs, not how you produce. The most important thing you can do is motivate your team and focus them on their most important tasks.

This is a hard mentality to set when you are used to only having to worry about yourself. However, if you shift your mindset to that of serving your team, you’ll find it a lot easier.

Service to your team means . . .

  • . . . removing blockers for your team so they can get things done.
  • . . . listening to problems and helping address them quickly.
  • . . . shielding your team from distractions.
  • . . . accepting responsibility if something goes wrong.
  • . . . showering credit and praise on your team when something goes right.

There’s a special kind of satisfaction that you get when you see your team excited after conquering a major challenge that you rallied them to complete.

2) Your best people are easiest to take for granted and most devastating if they leave.

You don’t have to work for long to recognize A players. They’re hard working, always learning and produce great results in their field. As a manager it’s easy to take these stars for granted while you’re fire fighting and dealing with struggling team members. Unfortunately, taking them for granted means that you may not realize they’re unhappy until they have another job offer and it’s too late.

To retain your team, you should never take anyone for granted or go too long without talking with them. One on ones are the most powerful tool in a manager’s arsenal to avoid this grave misstep, so start them today if you haven’t already. You can also use the Management by Walking Around approach to also accomplish some of this, although the privacy of a one on one will give deeper insights.

You need to challenge your best people regularly, create opportunities for them to grow, praise them, and give them work that excites them. These things will change over time, which is why you need to regularly talk with them and not wait for them to come to you. You also need to listen carefully as they are often your front line for detecting problems early; fixing problems while they’re small helps you avoid constantly triaging major problems that consume all your time.

3) Your team members are more than just cogs in your machine.

Even at a big company, 9-to-5 job your team members are still giving you one third of their current life by working for you. If you’re part of a startup, it’s often significantly more time. Appreciate this as well as the fact that there are things that happen outside their work hours that are important to them.

Members of your team are complete human beings. They have a family, hopes, dreams, hobbies and passions.  When you show you care about them as a complete person, it makes them more engaged with their work and more trusting in you. It will vary from person to person, but there is usually something personal that can lead to work “resentment” as Marissa Mayer calls it. And on the positive side, giving a small thoughtful gift based on their interests will be remembered long after an Amazon gift card or cash bonus.

When someone is extra excited, they often want to share it. When they’re upset, they may need someone to confide in or understand what they’re dealing with. We’re all human and sometimes things outside work (cancer, death in the family, bad breakups, etc) affect us no matter how hard we try.  Being there for your team members and recognizing when they need some help (time off, extension on a project or just someone to listen) will pay massive dividends in retaining and motivating your team.

4) Your example sets the tone for your team.

One of the most fascinating things I have observed in my career is how a company takes on the personality of their founders and leaders. For better and worse, you’ll see nuances in how people communicate, deal with good and bad news, and react to customers, clients and team members based on the example set by leaders.

Are you excited about your mission? Are you motivated each day? Do you show patience or are you quick to judge? Are you the first one in the office each day or the first to leave? When you are a manager or leader, the spotlight is on you and everyone is watching. If you watch carefully, you will notice people picking up on your behaviors and often mirroring many of them. You will also see how even something as simple as a sigh or negative body language by you can take the wind out of the sails of an excited team member.

Self-awareness is one of the hardest, but most important, skills you can develop as a manager. Recognize your strengths and weaknesses and pay attention to how your actions impact those around you. The more your team is picking up good behaviors from you, the higher they will perform.

5) A lack of consistency and follow through kills your credibility.

When a leader says one thing and does another or is perceived as playing favorites, they lose credibility quickly. Without credibility, a team will not be inspired to follow them nor perform at a high level.

So on top of all the above challenges, you have the need to be consistent in everything you do so as not to be perceived as a hypocrite. Of course, the challenge is that with all you have going on as a manager, it’s very easy to not be consistent. You may not mean to, but when things get busy and stressful, it’s easy to be forgetful.

This is the harsh truth I struggle with the most. Even knowing so well the above lessons, reading regularly and seeking the advice of mentors, it is still very hard not to slip up and fail to follow through or be consistent. Even the best leaders I’ve spoken to have to constantly work on this one.

How are you supposed to avoid all these harsh truths without any help?

There are apps to help you ship code, track projects, analyze your customers and manage your sales process. And yet, there’s nothing to specifically help managers like you motivate, engage and support your team.

Bloated HR tools like Success Factors are not the answer and were not built with a manager in mind.

I’ve developed a system that has helped me motivate and retain team members for my startup, Greenhorn Connect, and as product manager at KISSmetrics. I’ve learned these techniques from talking to great leaders at startups and publicly traded companies, as well as reading many books on the subject. If you’d like to learn more, sign up below:


 

Special thanks to Justin Jackson, Alex McClafferty, Rich Rines and Thomas Schranz for helping with this post.

The 2 Most Important Skills to Start Your Career

There is nothing harder than starting out or starting over. When you are new, it can be difficult to get your foot in the door and make a good impression. It can be hard to tell the difference between incompetence and a simple lack of experience.

Therefore, if you’re just starting out, there are two skills that are essential and will carry you farther than any others:

1) A Fierce Attention to Detail.

Any manager with a new hire has in the back of their mind the questions of, “Can they handle this?” and “How much do I need to keep an eye on their work?” If your manager knows you have an excellent eye for the details, they will be much more trusting in your abilities, knowing that you’ve taken good notes of their instructions, will triple check your work for careless mistakes and won’t do anything to make them look bad.  Building this trust can be the difference between a fast accelerating career with new responsibilities and languishing as an entry-level hire for years.

The longer I’ve been a manager and worked on product teams, the more I appreciate this trait. Over and over again we see the evidence of how the little details are what people notice and love (A great example is how Crashlytics built for Tweets which led to their viral growth). This is at the heart of great craftsmanship.

2) A Hunger to Learn.

Unfortunately, minding the details is not enough to succeed. You must also be eager to learn new skills. The faster you level up, the more likely you are to advance in your career whether always at the same company or at new ones. You need to learn from others and seek out sources of information on your own, which are skills in and of themselves to develop.

Many people in other careers have asked me how to get into product management, which isn’t always easy. However, one of the easiest ways to change your role is to work at a growing company and show how fast you can learn and grow.  This gives a company the confidence to give you more and new responsibilities.

The Combination is the Key.

When you combine an attention to detail with a hunger to learn, you will be unstoppable. Watching for the little details will make you more inquisitive and help you find the hidden gems and little secrets others gloss over. The little details are where life’s curiosities and greatest lessons lie.

As you grow the confidence of others and use curiosity to drive your learning, you will open new doors and build great relationships with others in your field. You are likely to attract great mentors who enjoy watching your development and love sharing stories and lessons to further your learning. They will also become your strongest advocates, either as great references, or the kinds of people that hire you again and again.

What do you think are the most important skills for those starting out?

Why are there so many bad managers?

Nobody sets out to be a bad manager and yet so many fall into traps and become one; it’s counter-intuitive to realize that humans are not straight forward machines. What worked as an individual contributor will not help you as a manager.

It’s easy to focus on the mechanical elements of management like company outcomes, hours logged, and project results, but that’s only a small part of what makes a great leader.

It’s so easy to stay professional instead of getting to know your team and what matters to them, especially if you’re remote or don’t interact with them every day. When this happens, is it any surprise they not only get frustrated or burn out but they don’t come to you with problems? Is it any surprise many bottle it up until they quit or find another job, which can lead to company-wide retention problems?

What do you do? Why do so many managers frustrate their teams?

The human element is missing.

If you help people achieve their goals, they’ll work hard for you to achieve the company’s goals as well. If you can align what you need them to do with what they want to do, the results can be great. If you make them feel important and recognize what they care about, they’ll work hard for you.

But all of this takes effort and time. Something that you don’t have unless you make time for it, which isn’t easy with all the emails, meetings and other responsibilities that come with a management role.

And rarely do such efforts get rewarded like specific company results do. So how do you make sure you’re not forgetting these things that pay off in the long term? And are you sure you are doing everything you could be?

I believe there is a way for today’s technology to help us all be better managers and caring leaders. If you’re interested in learning more, sign up below: